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Following protests over apparent ban, SABC decides to screen edited version of controversial documentary

(FXI/IFEX) - The following is a 6 June 2007 FXI press release:

FXI welcomes SABC's scheduling of Thabo Mbeki documentary

The Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) welcomes the fact that the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) has decided to schedule the controversial documentary on President Thabo Mbeki for screening on Sunday 10 June at 9 pm on SABC 3. In marches, pickets and demonstrations held outside various SABC offices since last November, the FXI has repeatedly called for the screening of the documentary, and the Institute is pleased that this is finally going to take place.

Originally the documentary was to be screened on 17 May 2006, but was withdrawn shortly beforehand, mainly because the documentary was - in the SABC's words - "incurably defamatory" of the President. The withdrawal caused a furor, and raised fears that the documentary had been withdrawn for political reasons, out of fear that its screening may damage the SABC's relations with the Presidency.

We believe that editorial changes have been made to the documentary by the producers (Broad Daylight productions), leading to an SABC decision finally to screen the documentary. The changes reportedly relate to material concerning the assassination of South African Communist Party (SACP) General Secretary Chris Hani; the SABC reportedly argued that the documentary could be interpreted as insinuating Mbeki's involvement in the assassination. Apparently, these changes make it explicitly clear that the original allegation was a baseless rumour.

Having viewed the original documentary, the FXI was of the view at the time that no reasonable viewer would have gone away with the impression that President Mbeki had any involvement in Hani's assassination, and that the alleged defamation was "read" in to the documentary unjustifiably by the SABC and its advisors purely by inference and not on the basis of any actual statements made. The FXI was also of the view that the SABC was really concerned about the critical tone adopted towards President Mbeki, and that the withdrawal of the documentary constituted censorship.

Also, given the relatively minor nature of the changes the producers have apparently made - which arguably were not even necessary for the flighting of the original version - it is not clear why these changes could not have been made in time for the documentary's original screening. Had this been done, then the SABC would have been spared all the negative publicity that flowed from its withdrawal. It would also have made the SABC's media campaign on its reasons to withdraw the documentary - which cost over a quarter of a million rand - unnecessary.

The fact that the documentary is now going to be screened calls into question the credibility of the SABC's original argument that the defamation was "incurable". If this was so, then no amount of editorial changes would rescue the documentary.

We are also made to understand that the SABC decided to reschedule the programme after the producers wrote to the SABC to cancel the contract, and planned to take the documentary elsewhere and show it at film festivals. This train of events suggests that the SABC's decision was motivated by pressure to respond to these developments, rather than a commitment to make good on the original undertaking to seek an accommodation with the producers.

More generally, the SABC needs to desist from withdrawing programmes at the last minute once they have been scheduled. The withdrawal of the Thabo Mbeki documentary was followed by the withdrawal of the circumcision drama Emthunzini WeNtaba from the schedule, as well as the withdrawal and subsequent rescheduling of a programme focusing on a gay relationship, entitled After 9.

When taken together, these withdrawals betray an editorial timidity on the part of the SABC, which seems to lack the courage of its convictions when it is faced with controversy over its more adventurous commissioned products.

As the FXI has stated in the past, it is an internationally accepted standard of broadcasting that once a programme is scheduled, it should not be withdrawn; such practices open broadcasters up to editorial pressure and compromises their editorial independence.

This practice also creates great uncertainty in the independent production sector, which may start to practice self censorship out of fear that their more critical products may never be screened. If the SABC wants to encourage cutting edge independent production - as it professes to want to do - then it needs to stand by its commissioned producers.

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